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May 22, 2024

Tracing Enslaved Ancestors During the Slave Trade: Understanding Slave Ship Records

by Darius Brown

An Overview of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade marked a pivotal moment in world history as it signified the beginning of the mass movement of human beings from their ancestral homes in Africa to the New World: South America, Central America, North America, and the Caribbean Islands. Key regions involved in the slave trade included the western and central regions of Africa, where European slave traders established significant trading posts and forts to facilitate the capture, purchase, and transportation of enslaved Africans to the Americas. The transatlantic slave trade primarily operated in these areas:

The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes courtesy of Slate Magazine
  1. West Africa: This region consisted of Senegambia (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau), Sierra Leone (Guinea and Sierra Leone), Windward Coast (Liberia and Ivory Coast), Gold Coast (Ghana), Bight of Benin (Togo, Benin, and portions of Ghana and Nigeria), and Bight of Biafra (Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon).

  2. Central Africa: This region consisted of West Central (Gulf of Guinea, Angola, and Congo).

  3. East Africa: This region consisted of Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, and Madagascar. Enslaved Africans from this region were often traded to Arab and Swahili traders and transported to the Middle East and the Indian Ocean islands, and to a lesser extent, to the Americas (Eltis and Richardson, 2022).

From African Personhood to Property

collage showing the journey from Africans to African Americans
Image description: Left: Ndop Portrait of King Mishe miShyaang maMbul (unknown artist) ca. 1760-1780 courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum; Top Right: 19th century engraving depicting a Slave Auction in South Carolina (Austa Malinda French (1810-1880) – Published in “Slavery in South Carolina and the ex-slaves.” (1862)); and Bottom Right: Iron Slave Collar to Prevent the Escape of Slaves (public domain).

From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the reality of human beings crammed in the holds of cargo ships became an insidious norm embedded in the fabric of society. Those seeking to make their fortune were routinely found in this trade, dehumanizing Africans as mere commodities essential for growing the emerging capitalistic economy of the Atlantic world.

Enslaved labor became a cornerstone of the Atlantic economic success, particularly in cultivating cash crops like sugar, tobacco, cotton, and rice, in high demand across Europe and beyond. The profits reaped from this inhumane trade enriched European merchants and financiers, fueling the wheels of industrialization and the ascent of capitalism (Inikroi 2020, S167).

There was a shift from recognizing Africans as human beings to viewing them as economic assets. The transformation in the perception of Africans was stark and appalling. Despite the immense wealth accumulated by those who perpetuated this system of exploitation, there was an unimaginable human cost. The depths of the multi-generational toll of suffering and devastation wrought by the transatlantic slave trade and plantation system on enslaved Africans were monumental. Countless lives were lost in the horrific conditions of the Middle Passage. Those who survived faced a lifetime of perpetual bondage until death released them from their torment.

Resistance and rebellion were constant in the lives of the enslaved as they bravely fought against oppression, seeking to reclaim their humanity and dignity. The desire for self-knowledge and connection to familial roots was profound, particularly poignant for those forcibly separated from loved ones (Brown 2023, 95). The reduction of humans to property contradicted the fundamental right to preserve familial histories.

Slavery-related Records & African American Family History Research

In recent years, there has been a surge in interest in utilizing slavery-related records to trace ancestral origins and reconnect with lost familial histories. This research offers a powerful counter-narrative to the dehumanizing legacy of the trade.

While surviving records like tax records, ship logs, and account books provide valuable insights, they are not inherently genealogically friendly, often reducing individuals to mere entries devoid of humanity. Navigating these documents requires careful interpretation and correlation with other evidence, employing techniques such as oral history, DNA analysis, and community collaboration to reconstruct identities and experiences.

August 1753 Charleston Gazette (Charleston, South Carolina) newspaper advertisement for the sale of Gambian slaves transported from Africa on the ship Molly & Sally. Image courtesy of Accessible Archives.

One example of such records with significant genealogical value is the Account of Sales, which typically includes details such as the total number of captives, vessel name, port of origin, owners, purchasers, and gender and age breakdown of enslaved individuals. Firms like Austin & Laurens, which played a prominent and controversial role in the slave trade, contributed to the economic prosperity of Charleston while perpetuating human suffering. Surviving account books offer valuable insights into the scale and mechanics of the trade.

Two examples of Account of Sales extracted from Laurens’ account book are provided below. While I discovered records pertaining to two individuals who enslaved my ancestors—Daniel Blake and Charles Pinckney—this analysis will center on Daniel Blake.

Austin & Laurens, Account Book. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Example 1: Austin & Laurens, Account Book. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Date: August 1754

1. Total captives: 164

2. Vessel: Orrell

3. Captain: James Bennet

4. Port of origin: Gambia (Gambia River)

5. Purchaser: John Knight & Co. of Liverpool

6. Enslaver: Daniel Blake

7. Demographic breakdown: 3 men

8. Payment: Paid in full, 720 pounds.

Austin & Laurens, Account Book
Example 2: Austin & Laurens, Account Book. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Date: September 1754

1. Total captives: 114

2. Vessel: Africa

3. Captain: William Mason

4. Port of origin: Sierra Leone

5. Purchaser: Robert & John Thompson & Co. of Lancaster

6. Enslaver: Daniel Blake

7. Demographic breakdown: 7 men, 4 women, 2 boys, 2 girls

8. Payment: Total of 4479 pounds; 1106 pounds paid in cash, with 3373 pounds due the following January.

The examples provided above, along with additional research, clearly indicated Daniel Blake’s preference for enslaved individuals from rice-growing regions, notably Senegambia and Sierra Leone. However, his transactions also included Africans from other regions. Further inquiry revealed the substantial presence of individuals from Senegambia and Sierra Leone on his Combahee River rice plantation. This presence was significant enough to preserve cultural elements in the New World, such as the practice of Islam among Africans from these regions and the prevalence of personal names commonly found in Senegambia and Sierra Leone (Brown, 2023).

A community-wide DNA project yielded even stronger connections, affirming that myself and others are descendants of many of the same enslaved Africans who were held on Daniel Blake’s plantation. Participants in this DNA project included direct descendants of enslaved Africans and African Americans from Daniel’s plantation. The study unveiled that we all share DNA with Africans from the same regions from which the early Africans were purchased. Additionally, it provided insights into the ethnic groups our ancestors belonged to, as well as their original surnames.

Our African DNA Cousins
Region during Slave TradeModern CountryAmountEthnic Affiliation of MatchesSurnames
SenegambiaGambia1WolofBarry, Cisse, Diadhiou, Diakhate, Diagne, Diop, Ndiaye, Thiam
Sierra LeoneGuinea9Fulani, Temne, Mende, Mandinka, LimbaBah, Balde, Diallo, Kamara, Levy
Sierra Leone6
Portion of DNA study of Africans who match Blake Plantation descendants 2021-2024.

The Account of Sales served as my initial point of reference, allowing me to identify one of the individuals who enslaved my ancestors. Building upon this foundation, I meticulously examined several other documents and skillfully correlated the evidence. Through this process, I could construct a vivid picture of the likely origins of some of my ancestors.

Connecting the ancestors of myself and others from South Carolina to Africa has been immensely rewarding and satisfying. No longer am I left to speculate about the origins of my ancestors; instead, I can definitively trace the region, ethnic groups, and surnames from which they hailed before their forced migration to South Carolina. This journey has provided concrete answers and a profound sense of connection to my heritage, underscoring the importance of understanding and honoring the legacies of those who came before us.


A., & L. (1750). Account book, 1750 April-1758 December. [Account books, Manuscripts].

Brown, Darius M. At the feet of the elders: A journey into a Lowcountry family history. Palmyra, VA: Shortwood Press, 2023.

Eltis, D., & Richardson, D. (2022, January 1). 1. overview of the slave trade out of Africa. Slave Voyages.

Inikori, J. E. (2020). Atlantic slavery and the rise of the capitalist global economy. Current Anthropology, 61(S22).